Our evidence for ancient masks is spotty at best: they were made of materials not durable enough to survive archaeological time, and what images we have are problematic. Sculptural representations are generally from later than the period of extant plays, and vase images “melt” the masks onto performers’ faces unless the actors are dressing or undressing. Artists’ depictions of eye and mouth openings, particularly on vases, tends towards real facial features rather than the proportions probably necessary for the actors to see and be heard.
The scholarly and practical question is how were the masks constructed in such a way that the performers could be heard clearly? And we know that they were heard clearly: after a single performance, plays are quoted or parodied for years afterwards, which could not happen if the audience couldn’t pick up on those allusions with great precision.
Over the course of two summers, Prof. Amy R. Cohen and her students, Naomi Fritts ’08, Brittany Stallings ’09, and Katrina Weichmann ’09, researched and developed techniques to build full theatrical masks that fit the ancient evidence.
They also work: in the four half-masked productions Greek Plays (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004), which all made full use of the orchêstra as a playing space, we had problems losing dialog when an actor turns to address another part of the audience or a character on the other side of the curve. With our new masks, however, built on the basis of ancient evidence, an actor with her back turned could be heard nearly as clearly as when she was facing the listener directly. The effect was consistent: without a mask, an actor could not be heard from behind; with the mask, she could, and as clearly as when she was facing forward.
With Oedipus the King in 2014, we added 3D printing to our process, in hopes of improving the appearance and size of the masks.
Amy R. Cohen’s article, “Can You Hear Me Now?–Implications of New Research in Greek Theatrical Masks,” appears in the Volume 7 of the journal Didaskalia.